cafe mama

a domestic realist blog

biology is not romance . 01 February 2016

the trees live in their own terrible truth

"Did you see the article about how the trees communicate?" asked my friend Heather. "I thought of you immediately." Through fungus, she goes on, and of course I've seen this but not on the internet.

I find the article. "When I say, 'Trees suckle their children,' everyone knows immediately what I mean." goes the caption, beneath a photo of a white-haired man at the roots of some fantastical tree. "PETER WOHLLEBEN," the caption reads. I'm supposed to be launched into dreamland but instead I'm incensed.

This seems magical -- I love magic -- but it's at best science read through romantic bias and, at worst, complete misinformation. dreamy misinformation... well-intentioned misinformation... the worst kind.

I've seen this before but in my own writing and conversation. I've been working on an essay about this topic: the mycorrhizal networks within the roots of trees, based on Marcus' PhD research (his supervisor was the one who coined the term "Wood Wide Web" -- this man's book is probably based on her work). Only... my essay controverts most of what Peter Wohlleben is asserting. Yes there are networks but the research shows they are not performing anything like Wohllen suggests. Only in the rarest instances do trees "nursemaid" seedlings in a way that benefits them.

"You have to be careful, though, about applying too many human structures onto organisms like fungi. That's what some scientists get caught up doing and then it's hard to see the results of research for what they really are: biology without account for sentimentality." That's a line from my essay (written weeks ago, before I read this piece, predicting it, because I was reacting to the work that inspired it). Another line I didn't write but which informs my whole book of essays: "Everything is just trying to survive."

The forest operates in some ways like an organism but, unlike the components of an organism, each tree and fungus and moss and fern and lichen and animal in the forest is acting out of self-interest rather than being governed by homeostatic master controls. Everything that lives in contact with another organism is doing so for food or shelter or reproduction; every like organism is in competition; biology is not romance. Biology is Ayn Rand.

Biology is magic, it is absolute magic, but scientists (when it comes down to the nutmeat of the thing) don't believe in magic. Maybe the good ones do. Because magic doesn't operate like a romance. Magic is unsympathetic. Magic does not give without taking. Have you read a fairy tale? Have you read anything? Have you observed the way biology demands: without wishing?

In magic every dear thing is obtained by hard work and to save a life you must give one. No the trees do not send up shoots to find sun to be kind to their buddies; they are fighting bark and branch and leaf to live. I have seen ivy dig into the trunks of trees and choke it; I have seen termites devour a tree from its heart. Those beautiful pear mushrooms are eating the Garry oak alive.

The fungi are benefiting the trees but they are not doing it for the trees' benefit. The "mother" tree does not "suckle" its "child." The trees coexist but you cannot say they do so gladly. Biology is not romance!

Everything is just trying -- coldly, determinedly, casting its spells without pity -- to survive.

comments powered by Disqus

read my previous post . Loowit will not choose . 12 October 2015